by Brad Botkin CBS sports
And just like that, we’re down to the final two episodes of “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary chronicling the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. If next week’s finales are going to send us off on a high note, they’re going to have their work cut out, because Sunday’s episodes, in my opinion, are the best of the series so far.
We got Michael Jordan at his finest, equally cutthroat and emotional as he takes us into his sphere of obsession. We got Scottie Pippen doubling down on the most controversial decision of his career. We got the baseball years, the 72-win season and the 1996 championship on the heels of Michael losing his father. We got an incredible story about LaBradford Smith, Gary Payton saying, effectively, he was something of a Jordan stopper, and Reggie Miller concluding it all with a quote for ages.
On that final note, here are the 10 best quotes/moments from Episode 7 and 8.
- “We all looked at the Bulls as the standard model of success. They were considered the best at that time. But we felt, and I feel to this day, we were the better team. The whole thing is, there was whispers that this was going to be Mike’s last year. So I think a perfect storm was brewing. In my mind, I was thinking … ‘this is it. You’re going to retire Michael Jordan.'” — Reggie Miller
This banger comes in the final moments of Episode 8. Timelines wise, the Bulls have just defeated the Magic in the second round of the 1998 Eastern Conference playoffs. The Pacers await in the conference finals, and surely this series, which you could easily was the toughest of Michael Jordan’s career, will be covered in depth next Sunday.
What a teaser by Miller. I’m going to retire Michael Jordan. He wasn’t far from wrong. The Pacers took the Bulls to seven games, and we know Jordan did retire, again, after the ’98 season. It begs the question: Would Jordan have retired if he’d lost to Miller and the Pacers? We’ll never know. But what a quote.
- “It’s one of those incidents where I wish it never happened. But if I had the chance to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t change it.” — Scottie Pippen
This was a complete shocker to me. Pippen is referring to Game 3 of the Bulls’ 1994 second-round series vs. the Knicks, when he refused to go back in the game after Phil Jackson designed the last-second shot for Toni Kukoc rather than Pippen, who thought he deserved the star treatment once Michael had gone off to play baseball. This is without question the biggest stain on Pippen’s career, and the documentary makes clear how badly Pippen felt about quitting on his teammates in the aftermath. He apologized profusely at the time.
But now, with 25 years to think about it, he says he would do it the same way? This is a bad look. It’s one thing to let your emotions get the best of you in the heat of the moment, especially for a guy like Pippen, who’d been having to hear for so long that he wasn’t a superstar player and was finally getting to be the man, or so he thought. But with literal decades to invoke your better judgment, this just feels stubborn and absurd for Pippen to just outright say he would bail on his teammates again. Really bad.
- “A lot of people backed down to Mike. I didn’t. I made it a point, I said, ‘just tire him out. Tire the f— out of him. And I kept hitting him and banging him, and hitting him and banging him, and it took a toll on Mike. It took a toll. And the series changed. I wish I could’ve did it earlier. I don’t know if the outcome would’ve been any different, but it was a difference me guarding him and beating him down a little bit.” — Gary Payton
This got a lot of coverage leading up to Sunday’s episodes with some leaked footage, and it’s going to be replayed all week, namely because of Jordan cracking up laughing as he listens to Payton saying this. “I had no problem with The Glove,” an amused Jordan proclaims.
That’s not entirely true. After Payton picked up Jordan in Game 4, Jordan shot 36 percent for the rest of the series, including 6 for 19 in Game 4 and 5 for 19 in Game 6.
- “You’re not going to believe this, but Michael wants to retire.” — David Falk to Jerry Reinsdorf
You talk about shaking up the entire NBA landscape with one sentence. This was a bombshell. Can you imagine being Reinsdorf, owner of the Bulls, and having Michael Jordan’s agent walk in and tell you that after three consecutive championships the best player in the world is going to retire from basketball smack dab in the middle of his prime to go play baseball.
It’s still crazy to think about to this day. Michael Jordan going to play baseball. Which leads me to …
- “In my opinion, with 1,500 at-bats, he wou’d’ve found a way to get to the major leagues.” — Terry Francona
This is not just anyone saying this. Terry Francona is a World Series-winning manager. I’m not going to say I agree with this assessment. You watch Michael Jordan play baseball, and that’s not a big leaguer.
But I will say, the guy hit .202 and drove in 50 runs at the Double-A level off the street, without having picked up a bat since he was 17 years old. As Francona went on to say: “We had a lot of good prospects that didn’t drive in 50 runs.”
- “Let’s not get it wrong. He was an asshole. He was a jerk. He crossed the line numerous times. But as time goes on, and you think back about what he was actually trying to accomplish, you’re like, ‘yeah, he was a hell of a teammate.'” — Will Perdue
There are a ton of great quotes about, and from, Jordan in these two episodes, but to me, this one says it all. There was a method to the madness. Jordan gets legitimately emotional at the end of Episode 7 as he frames his belief on leadership, and this is what he’s getting at.
He’s going to be hard on you. Challenge you. He’s going to pull things out of you that you maybe didn’t even know you had to give. He’s going to do it for himself, because he’s a selfish, maniacal competitor to his core, but he’s also doing it for you. He cared about is teammates, and to know that after all thee years, they get it, and they’re thankful, even for a guy as hardened as Michael Jordan, has to feel good.
- “Tomorrow, in the first half, I’m going to have in the first half what this kid had in the game.” — Michael Jordan, via B.J. Armstrong
The now-famous LaBradford Smith story. As it goes, Smith, a no-name NBA player who lasted just three seasons in the league, got his moment in the sun when he scored 37 points against the Bulls on March 19, 1993. After the game — again, supposedly — Smith went up to Jordan, put his arm around him and said: “Nice game, Mike.”
Jordan, who didn’t play well, of course took offense to this, and it just so happened the Bulls were playing the Bullets again the very next night in Washington. So they get on the plane, where Armstrong says Jordan tells everyone what he’s going to do to Smith. And then he does it. Scores 36 in the first half, humiliates the kid, points at him, the Bulls win, and that’s that.
“I’ve never seen a man go after another player the way he did,” Armstrong recalled.
Fast forward more than a decade later, and a rumor has surfaced that LaBradford Smith never did this, that he never put his arm around Jordan or even said anything to him. Jordan gets asked about it. Did this really happen? And he admits that it didn’t, that he made the whole thing up just to light some deranged fire inside him to go out and kill this poor kid.
Absolutely amazing. The depths to which this man would go to work himself into an assassin’s lather so he could win a basketball game is just hilariously awesome.
- “I was nervous. I hadn’t played competitive in a long time. I felt naked because my father wasn’t there.” — Michael Jordan
Jordan is talking about his first game back after his baseball hiatus. It was at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, vs. the Pacers, and to hear Michael Jordan, the kind of cool, say he was nervous speaks to how much the game meant to him and the weight of his father’s death. This is a heavy episode, and this is a heavy quote.
- “A lot of youngsters want to be like Toni.” — Jerry Krause at Toni Kukoc introduction
There’s just no other way to look at this: Krause is playing on — or taking a dig at, depending on your perspective — the “Be Like Mike” commercials. The tension between Jordan and Krause is no secret, as this documentary as relentlessly illuminated, and Kukoc was Krause’s prize find.
So bitter were Jordan and Pippen how much Krause gushed over Kukoc — not to mention how much he was going to pay him — that they completely embarrassed him at he 1992 Olympics just to, as Pippen put it, “make Jerry look bad.” There’s just no way Krause saying these exact words to introduce Kukoc was by accident, and I have to be honest, it’s kind of gangster.
- “It don’t mean a thing without the ring.” — Bulls 1995-96 slogan
I mean, what else is there to say. The Warriors beat Chicago’s regular-season record, winning 73 games in 2015-16, but they didn’t get the ring. The Bulls finished their 72-win season with a title. There’s just nothing else to say.